The bad smell from the VW emissions scandal looks like it’s going to hang in the air for quite a bit longer yet.
This week it was alleged that VW funded a medical research group to lobby against the growing body of academic evidence that diesel emissions are a serious threat to public health. There were reports of more lobbying too with VW spending 3.3 million Euros courting European Commission policy makers in Brussels. News like this casts an uncomfortable shadow over the whole European motor industry and is the reason why there’s now much more anti-car rhetoric with the media aiming their guns squarely at the car industry, which let’s face it, isn’t looking very good right now. But we believe it’s important to understand that the increase in volume of car-negativity is a continuing example of the long-running battle between left and right where the car is the symbol of villainy.
This class-based warfare has been raging for years and we saw it at its most strident in the Blair years where there was a tacit policy in Westminster to make driving as difficult and expensive as possible. Congestion charging, speed cameras, cancellation of road building projects and fuel escalators were all government policies aimed at reducing car use. And we all remember the point when the nation realised the rhetoric had become too rabid when Ken Livingstone proposed a £25 congestion charge for SUVs entering London. This was based on nothing more than the fact that London’s mayor hated SUVs and everybody who drove them. It wasn’t rational.
But the actions of VW have reignited this class war and strengthened the resolve of the anti-car lobby across Europe. Air quality and the health dangers of diesel have catapaulted our dependency on the car to the front page and there’s growing pressure on the UK Government to appease a growing body of anxious green campaigners. That means a likely increase in the duty on diesel and we’re hearing rumours from inside the Treasury that petrol duty may even reduce to persuade drivers to switch back to unleaded fuel. At FairFuelUK we agree that diesel emissions are a serious health issue and that much more independent research needs to be carried out to establish just how bad things really are and, critically, if the modern diesel engine has reached the peak of its emission reduction. But, as we’ve said before, reducing diesel use – especially on older cars, vans, buses and LCVs - is both a priority and a problem. We need to reduce particulate and NOx emissions but we can’t do this overnight.
We’re writing to the Chancellor to counsel caution and remind him that our road-based economy is heavily reliant on diesel and any precipitous moves to increase fuel costs for families and businesses as an environmental gesture should be carefully considered. But we’re also going to remind him that the Government and green campaigners were ultimately responsible for creating the diesel issue in the first place by warning us all that CO2 was the major problem and ignoring what is almost as serious - particulates and nitrogen emissions. We know that Whitehall knew about the increase in diesel emissions in our towns and cities as far back as 2009. Green pressure groups are right to highlight the seriousness of air quality in the UK but they’ve also got to admit some responsibility for moving us towards much higher levels of diesel use along with the unintended consequences of causing that behavioral shift among UK drivers.
FairFuel isn’t a lobbying group it’s an independent not-for-profit campaign with 1.2 million supporters. We’re totally transparent in our funding sources and receive no money whatsoever from the car or oil industries. We’re supported by the road haulage and telematics industry plus donations from members of the public and our agenda is simple: to reduce the cost of road transport in the UK to stimulate economic growth. We believe that’s an honourable aim (and one that’s helped increase UK GDP by 0.5%) but we support road use because the UK’s current public transport resources can’t cope at the moment, never mind if 37 million drivers suddenly left their cars and vans at home and jumped on trains and buses. That way disaster lies. We think that being pro-roads is a reasonable and defensible position and make no apologies. We’re honest, open and informed and realise the daily challenges faced by the road haulage industry and private drivers who simply want to get to work.
And somebody has to be. There are very few distinct and trustworthy voices out there to protect our essential road economy and the right of affordable free movement for everybody. Our experience of government roads policy thus far isn’t great and we worry about the surprising gaps in their knowledge. As for our environmental credentials, I believe they’re sound too. We’ve campaigned for greater use of electric and ultra low emission cars, drive EVs and hybrids ourselves, I’ve just been given an EV Champion award and for many years have worked with the Government on promoting the take up of EVs in the UK. We understand that encouraging the use of cleaner cars is essential and totally support any initiative to increase public engagement. So as the war against cars and roads becomes louder and more vociferous FairFuelUK will continue to provide the intellectual light, shade and balance to help protect the millions of hard-working drivers who simply have no other choice.